Concepts are the building blocks of theory, and are the points around which social research is conducted.
Concepts are closely related to the main sociological perspectives, and some of the main concepts developed by different perspectives include:
- Functionalism – social integration and anomie
- Marxism – social class and alienation.
- Feminism – gender and patriarchy
- Interactionism – labelling and discrimination
- Postmodernism – identity.
Within sociology, one might even say that there’s a more ‘fundamental’ layer of concepts that lie behind the above – such as ‘society’, ‘culture’ and ‘socialization‘, even ‘sociology’ itself is a concept, as are ‘research’ and ‘knowledge’.
Concepts also include some really ‘obvious’ aspects of social life such as ‘family’, ‘childhood’, ‘religious belief’, ‘educational achievement’ and ‘crime’. Basically, anything that can be said to be ‘socially constructed’ is a concept.
Each concept basically represents a label that researchers give to elements of the social world that strikes them as significant. Bulmer (1984) suggests that concepts are ‘categories for the organisation of ideas and observations’.
Concepts and their measurement in quantitative research
If a concept is to be employed in quantitative research, a measure will have to be developed for it so it can be quantified.
Once they have been converted into measures, concepts can then take the form of independent or dependent variables. In other words, concepts may provide an explanation of a certain aspect of the social world, or they may stand for things we want to explain. A concept such as educational achievement may be used in either capacity – we may explore it as a dependent variable (why some achieve fewer GCSE results than others?) Or: as an independent variable (how do GCSE results affect future earnings?).
Measures also make it easier to compare educational achievement over time and across countries.
As we start to investigate such issues we are likely to formulate theories to help us understand why, for example, educational achievement varies between countries or over time.
This will in turn generate new concepts, as we try to refine our understanding of variations in poverty rates.
Why Measure Concepts?
- It allows us to find small differences between individuals – it is usually obvious to spot large differences, for example between the richest 0.1% and the poorest 10%, but smaller once can often only be seen by measuring more precisely – so if we want to see the differences within the poorest 10%, we need precise measurements of income (for example).
- Measurement gives us a consistent device, or yardstick for making such distinctions – a measurement device allows us to achieve consistency over time, and thus make historical comparisons, and with other researchers, who can replicate our research using the same measures. This relates to reliability.
- Measurement allows for more precise estimates to be made about the correlation between independent and dependent variables.
Indicators in Quantitative Social Research
Because most concepts are not directly observable in quantitative form (i.e. they do not already appear in society in numerical form), sociologists need to devise ‘indicators’ to measure most sociological concepts. An indicator is something that stands for a concept and enables (in quantitative research at least) a sociologist to measure that concept.
- We might use ‘Average GCSE score’ as an indicator to measure ‘educational achievement’.
- We might use the number of social connections an individual has to society to measure ‘social integration’, much like Hirschi did in his ‘bonds of attachment theory‘.
- We might use the number of barriers women face compared to men in politics and education to measure ‘Patriarchy’ in society.
NB – there is often disagreement within sociology as to the correct indicators to use to measure concepts – before doing research you should be clear about which indicators you are using to measure your concepts, why you are choosing these particular indicators , and be prepared for others to criticize your choice of indicators.
Direct and Indirect indicators
Direct indicators are ones which are closely related to the concept being measured. In the example above, it’s probably fair to say that average GCSE score is more directly related to ‘educational achievement’ than ‘bonds of attachment’ are to ‘social integration’, mainly because the later is more abstract.
How sociologists devise indicators:
There are a number of ways indicators can be devised:
- through a questionnaire
- through recording behaviour
- through official statistics
- through content analysis of documents.
Using multiple-indicator measures
It is often useful to use multiple indicators to measure concepts. The advantages of doing so are three fold:
- there are often many dimensions to a concept – for example to accurately tap ‘religious belief’ questionnaires often include questions on attitudes and beliefs about ‘God’, ‘the afterlife’, ‘the spirit’, ‘as well as practices – such as church attendance. Generally speaking, the more complex the concept, the more indicators are required to measure it accurately.
- Some people may not understand some of the questions in a questionnaire, so using multiple questions makes misunderstanding less likely.
- It enables us to make more nuanced distinctions between respondents.
Measuring the effectiveness of measures in quantitative social research
It is crucial that indicators provide both a valid and reliable measurement of the concepts under investigation.